Siberia is a vast territory of northern Asia, part of the Commonwealth
of Independent States (formerly the U.S.S.R.). It is
bounded by the Urals on the west, by Kazakhstan, China, and
North Korea on the south, by the Pacific on the east, and by the
Arctic on the north.
In former times, most of the tribal cultures of Siberia practiced
the art of sorcery through the expertise of the shaman.
The definitive characteristic of the shaman, as opposed to
other tribal ritual leaders, was the ability to go into trance and
travel in the spirit world.
The Samoyeds of Siberia believed in the existence of an
order of invisible spirits called tadebtsois. These were ever circling
through the atmosphere and were a constant menace to
the people, who were anxious to propitiate them. This propitiation
could only be effected through the intervention of a tadibe,
or necromancer, who, when his services were requisitioned,
attired himself in a magic costume of reindeer leather trimmed
with red cloth, a mask of red cloth, and a breastplate of polished
metal. He then took a drum of reindeer skin ornamented
with brass rings and, attended by an assistant, walked in a circle
and invoked the spirits while shaking a large rattle. The practice
was very similar to that found among the Lapps in Lapland.
As the noise grew louder the spirits were supposed to draw
near the sorcerer, who addressed them, beating his drum more
gently and pausing in his chant to listen to their answers. Gradually
he worked himself into a condition of frenzy, beat the
drum with great violence, and appeared to be possessed by the
spirit’s influence, writhing and foaming at the mouth. All at
once he stopped and oracularly pronounced the will of the spirits.
The tadibe’s office was a hereditary one, but a member of
the tribe exhibiting special qualifications was adopted into the
priesthood, and through fasts, vigils, and the use of narcotics
and stimulants—in the same manner as employed by some Native
Americans—came to believe that he or she was visited by
the spirits. The initiate was then adopted as a tadibe in a midnight
ceremony and invested with a magic drum.
Many of the tricks of the priesthood were merely those of ordinary
conjuring, such as the rope trick, but some of the illusions
were exceedingly striking. With their hands and feet tied
together, the tadibe sat on a carpet of reindeer skin and, putting
out the light, summoned the assistance of the spirits. Peculiar
noises heralded the spirits’ approach, snakes hissed and
bears growled, the lights were rekindled, and the tadibe’s
hands and feet were untied.
The Samoyeds sacrificed often to the dead and performed
various ceremonies in their honor, but they believed that only
the souls of the tadibes enjoyed immortality, hovering in the air
and demanding frequent sacrifices.
Further to the east, inhabiting the more northerly part of Siberia,
lived the Ostiaks, who nominally adopted the rites of the
Greek church, but magic was also common among them. Many
Ostiaks carried a kind of fetish they called schaitan.
Larger images of this kind were part of the furnishings of
an Ostiak lodge, but they were attired in seven pearlembroidered
garments and suspended from the neck by a
string of silver coins. In a strange sort of dualism they were
placed in many of the huts cheek by jowl with the image of the
Virgin Mary, and at mealtimes their lips were smeared with the
blood of raw game or fish.
The Mongols, who inhabited the more southern parts of the
vast expense of Siberia, were also ancient practitioners of magic
and relied greatly on divination. To prognosticate the weather
they employed a stone endowed with magic virtues, called
yadeh-tash, which was suspended over or laid in a basin of water
with sundry ceremonies.
Many of the old beliefs and practices in Siberia died out following
the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent development
of the area. (See also Fetishism)